John and I were, at this point, almost a full year into our house search, and by some people’s standards — those of the characters in the movie Clerks, for example –we had accomplished a lot.
We had been pre-approved and then shuffled our feet for months. We attended open houses and kicked ourselves for waiting so long to start looking. We read “Home Buying for Dummies” and learned many interesting acronyms – PITI, PMI, YSP – and words like “points” and “escrow,” which I still don’t fully understand, even though I acted like I did throughout the entire sign-your-life-away mortgage process. We combed the real estate listings each Friday and Sunday and drove down every back road, cul de sac and side street in a 20-mile radius around Portland, cruising for “for sale” signs. We kept an eagle eye on interest rates and plugged the slightest variation into the many graphs and tables I had constructed. Yes, graphs.
Now, you might find the thought of me doing math frightening (if so, you should see me with a French chef’s knife in my hand), but watch this: A 30-year loan on a $200,000 home at 6 percent with 20 percent down would come out to a monthly, pre the “T” and “I” of the PITI, payment of — ta-da! — $960; at 6.25 percent, it would be $985. (Play your cards right, and I might let you come over and watch me dice shallots, too. See what the ‘burbs have done to me?)
We had also found our broker/guardian angel, Rita, and in her someone who could guide us through the muddle. But, mostly, we looked at a lot of scary houses, drove by a lot of scary houses, didn’t slow down in front of a lot of scary houses and continued to kick ourselves for waiting so long. The one thing we hadn’t done in all this time, however, was see any “real” houses.
Yet, we hadn’t grown discouraged. And that’s because there was always the nagging promise of something else, something more, something worthy around the corner. We dismissed open houses as “just open houses.” When we first hooked up with Rita in February and scanned the couple dozen listings she sent, we dismissed them as leftovers, overpriced crap that had been hanging around the market for a while. After all, it was the dead of winter. “Wait until spring,” Rita would tell us. “Things really start opening up in the spring.” There was always hope. Always hope and promise.
Then came Walnut.
It’s not that Walnut (we were now referring to all properties by their street names only, with all the Lanes and Avenues and Ways dropped) was anything outstanding. It was just that the listing for this tidy South Portland Colonial with a fireplace and big yard seemed promising after all the smelly rooms and sagging roofs and crooked floors and punky beams we had seen.
So, I should have been encouraged when John and I met Rita there on that mild Saturday morning in May. The house was not near a tank farm or an abattoir (that I could see) and was in pretty good shape. It needed sprucing, not a wrecking ball. There were wood floors and a large, sunny kitchen that had some not-awful updates and amenities, including a box of freeze-pops and a bottle of tequila in the freezer. John could actually stand upright upstairs, and there was a nice office space for me. (I always instantly claimed the best room for my office – even if it happened to be the dining room or master bedroom.) There was no bad vibe, no creepy mojo, no weird freestanding toilet in the basement. And it had a funny window that separated the living room from the dining room that brought to mind a puppet theater. Granted, Walnut was not a great house and we both knew it, but it was a real house. We could make do with Walnut. And that’s where the crisis came into play. I just didn’t want to live there. Problem was, John thought we could.
You know that moment in horror movies when the friend or family member suddenly rips off the rubber mask to reveal he/she/it is actually an alien posing as your loved one? This was that moment for me. Up until now, John and I had been like-minded about everything. Everything. The money we wanted to spend. Where we would be willing to live. What concessions we were willing to make (although giving up the ocean view and orchards were much more difficult for me than for him). It never occurred to me that he and I might ever not see exactly eye to eye.
It wasn’t as though he was petitioning for the house. He only mentioned he could see us living there – and, as though to demonstrate, he gave us a mock puppet show from behind the window. Rita found this charming. I was horrified.
But it was more than that. This moment ultimately marked a major emotional turning point in our search. It was high spring, and that new crop of fabulous listings simply hadn’t come in. I realized we were not going to be magically presented with the house I felt we deserved; that we were not above the fray, after all, but very much exactly like every other ordinary home buyer who was trying to hover around the $1,000-per-month, pre-escrow, point-free PITI in that insane market where people were bringing cashier’s checks to open houses and bidding up on over-inflated asking prices. Walnut, it seemed, was our mean house, and Walnut, to my mind, was wanting.
Of course, I didn’t want to be a killjoy (for once), especially after all the gack houses we had seen. So, I gave a little “Let’s think about it” and suggested we move on to the next property. As we drove off, though, I could feel my optimism fading along with that tidy Colonial in the rearview mirror.
And we did think about Walnut. Each time we looked at yet another scary house in its price range, I had to wonder if I blew it. How could I have let a perfectly fine, tidy Colonial get away? What was I waiting for, a miracle?
John will assert to this day that Walnut was a good house and that we could’ve been happy there.
He was, of course, wrong.
Elizabeth Peavey swears that every single word of this column is true, except for the made-up parts, of which there are not few.